MLB free agency – Season impact on Aaron Judge’s contract value

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On the eve of the regular season, Aaron Judge was offered a seven year, $213.5 million contract from the New York Yankees. The consensus at the time was that he was worth a bit more than that, but that it was a fair offer with a hometown discount baked in. Judge, though, turned it down, opting to bet on himself — and it has worked in a huge way.

In late May, during Judge’s hot start to the season (.307/.381/.664 in 156 PA at that point), I wrote that his expectations should now be well north of the Yankees’ preseason offer of $213.5 million, even getting lucky with a line about Judge potentially deserving around $300 million if he hit 60 home runs this year.

Judge has only gotten hotter, hitting .317/.435/.705 over 506 PA since May 21, posting the highest WAR since peak Barry Bonds from 2001 to 2004 and reaching the 60-home run mark with nine games now left to tie or break the American League record.

If Judge’s hot start has been followed by the best full season in almost two decades, how far north should his contract expectations be now? Is $300 million now the expectation?

We polled more than a dozen MLB executives, agents and insiders to find out.

Here are the 14 predictions from lowest to highest total dollars committed:

7 years for $259 million
10 for $265 million
8 for $280 million
8 for $280 million
8 for $300 million
7 for $301 million
9 for $320 million
8 for $320 million
8 for $328 million
9 for $333 million
9 for $335 million
10 for $340 million
10 for $341 million
10 for $375 million

And even more interesting, of the nine respondents to project a team Judge will end up with, four said he will stay with the Yankees, two have him going to the Mets, two said the Giants and one said the Giants or Dodgers. (More about that later.)

The contract guesses are pretty symmetrical, with one standout at the top (I wouldn’t call it an outlier) and two at the bottom. These average out to 8.6 years and a hair below $320 million, which perfectly averages the two median responses.

Some respondents said they would include escalators, vesting options and bonuses of note, as teams scared about a big guarantee or long term for a player of Judge’s size, position, and history wouldn’t mind paying as long as the performance continued. I’d also expect some creativity to dress up the final number, or an opt-out so the slugger can potentially capitalize on another shot at free agency if he keeps this up.

For reference, when the Yankees offered $213.5 million before the season, I estimated his true value at that time to be between $213.5 million and $250 million, and now a panel of experts think he’s worth about $320 million. In other words: Aaron Judge has made about $100 million this year by betting on himself. The experts with the top couple of projections pointed out that they expected a bidding war and projected a contract that reflected that, which we’ll get into below.

If Judge is the best player in baseball, shouldn’t he also be the highest-paid?

Given the season Judge has had, it’s becoming harder to say, “Well, you can’t pay him that.” He is setting precedents with nearly every swing this season. In fact, a couple of the experts I talked to immediately responded to my question of how much Judge should get with something to the effect of “just over Mike Trout’s AAV.”

But there are several factors that will dampen contact projections a bit. The analytics movement has consumed baseball in the last decade, and the Yankees are at the forefront of that group.

Judge will turn 31 next April and he already plays a corner outfield spot. He also has been somewhat injury prone over the years (though not the last two seasons) and while his NFL lineman-esque size helps him hit mammoth home runs at the plate, it also fuels questions about his long-term future in the field.

There is another complication as front offices begin to determine a value for Judge ahead of his free agency this offseason: The most comparable contracts (which we laid out when we examined his already unique case in May) don’t really apply now, as there hasn’t been a free agent coming off a season anywhere close to this at any age recently.

Just look at how Judge’s 2022 output (10.7 WAR in an age-30 season right now) compares to the walk-year performance of the highest-paid free agent hitters in each of the last five seasons:

Bryce Harper, RF, Philadelphia Phillies: 13 years, $330 million
Walk year (2018, age-25 season, Washington Nationals): 3.1 WAR

Corey Seager, SS, Texas Rangers: 10 years, $325 million
Walk year (2021, 27, Los Angeles Dodgers): 3.7 WAR

Manny Machado, 3B, San Diego Padres: 10 years, $300 million
Walk year (2018, 25, Baltimore Orioles/Los Angeles Dodgers): 7.0 WAR

Anthony Rendon, 3B, Los Angeles Angels, 7 years, $245 million
Walk year (2019, 29, Washington Nationals): 6.8 WAR

Kris Bryant, 3B, Colorado Rockies, 7 years, $182 million
Walk year (2021, 29, Chicago Cubs/San Francisco Giants): 3.1 WAR

Marcus Semien, 2B, Texas Rangers, 7 years, $175 million
Walk year (2021, 30, Toronto Blue Jays): 6.2 WAR

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers, 6 years, $162 million
Walk year (2021, 31, Atlanta Braves): 4.9 WAR

George Springer, CF, Toronto Blue Jays, 6 years, $150 million
Walk year (2020, 30, Houston Astros): 1.8 WAR in 60-game season

The results of these players have been mostly solid. However, if you toss in more historical examples — deep breath: Robinson Cano, Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, Chris Davis, Prince Fielder, Jason Heyward, Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury, etc. — you can see that the period after signing serves as a reminder of the general nature of mega-contracts (especially the back half of those deals): an unpredictability that leads teams to drastically round down offers.

In Judge’s case, for a player over 30, the projections won’t be as good as those for a star player who is younger, smaller, more durable and plays up the middle like Seager, who cashed in as a 28-year-old with the Rangers last offseason.

Where is Judge going?

I would’ve expected well over half of the nine experts who named a specific landing spot to predict Judge will stay with the Yankees, but instead more than half think he will leave.

It’s clear to me that the Yankees need him more than any other team, but their payroll as a percentage of overall club revenue has continued heading lower and they obviously aren’t writing a blank check — even for Judge. All the spots the experts named (the Mets, Giants and Dodgers) are reasonable bets to be willing and able to pay what it would take to land him.

We still don’t know how deep Mets owner Steve Cohen’s pockets go and signing Judge would be the kind of splash that dominates the New York sports pages for months — and makes the Mets better.

I’ll give you a scenario: Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo is one of the leading free agent outfielders behind Judge. Let’s say the cost to sign Nimmo this offseason would be a contract in the four years, $80 million range. Paying an extra $15-20 million per year to turn Nimmo into Judge seems reasonable if Cohen can stomach the risk on the back end of Judge’s deal.

The Giants essentially need to spend their way out of a talent deficit (which I covered recently), and local product Judge would be the straightest path to reliving the Bonds glory days and getting more competitive with the Dodgers.

The Dodgers have the second-highest payroll in baseball (behind only the Mets) but also could have nearly $140 million coming off the books this year, if Trea Turner and Clayton Kershaw leave via free agency and Cody Bellinger is non-tendered.

With Walker Buehler‘s Tommy John surgery, the Dodgers’ vaunted pitching depth is now down to a handful of good arms and some prospects, so I’d expect pitching to be a priority — but that’s a lot of potentially available payroll space for a team without a clear payroll ceiling.

All of this means that Judge could very well be the top offseason priority for the teams with the top three payrolls in baseball — along with a San Francisco club with big offseason spending potential — so the concept of Judge leaving the Bronx to go to a higher bidder doesn’t seem so farfetched.

What happens in New York if Judge leaves?

The most intriguing question to me is if he does leave after the Yankees lose a bidding war, what will they do with the money they were going to offer him? Let’s say the average prediction of $320 million over eight or nine years is what they budget for him. What else could the Yankees get in this free agent market for that amount?

With their top two prospects (Anthony Volpe and Oswald Peraza) both big league-ready shortstops, it doesn’t make much sense to get a shortstop on a megadeal. The four best free agent position players after Judge this offseason all happen to be shortstops — Turner, Xander Bogaerts, Dansby Swanson and Carlos Correa if he opts out. So the Yankees would need one to be willing to play somewhere other than shortstop to replace Judge with a premium position player via this winter’s free agent market. Of that group, Bogaerts might be most willing to change positions since his future could be at third base for any team that signs him.

Given how deep the Yankees are across the infield, signing Nimmo from the Mets might be the best direct replacement for New York — even if he isn’t quite in the class of the other free agent hitters.

A lineup that’s mostly standing pat is solid. Going around the horn, that looks like:

C Jose Trevino
1B Anthony Rizzo
2B Gleyber Torres/DJ LeMahieu
SS Volpe/Peraza/Isiah Kiner-Falefa (sharing time)
3B Josh Donaldson/LeMahieu
LF Oswaldo Cabrera (who can also play the infield)
CF Harrison Bader/Aaron Hicks
RF Brandon Nimmo
DH Giancarlo Stanton

And then top prospects catcher Austin Wells and outfielders Everson Pereira and Jasson Dominguez could start showing up in 2024.

On the pitching side, the Yankees will start the offseason with Gerrit Cole, Nestor Cortes, Frankie Montas and Domingo German in the rotation, with Luis Severino on an affordable club option and Jameson Taillon as a pending free agent. They’ll need to add at least one premium starter and there are plenty of top-flight options expected to be available who would fit the Yankees. I’d price the best fits as follows:

  • Jacob deGrom: 3-4 years at $43.4 million per year (one tick over Max Scherzer’s AAV)

  • Carlos Rodon: 5 years, $115 million (very similar to the Kevin Gausman deal last winter)

  • Justin Verlander: 2-3 years at $43.4 million per year (Scherzer’s AAV, again)

  • Clayton Kershaw: I’ll guess 3-4 years at $25-30 million per year? It’s unclear if he wants to leave the Dodgers

  • Koudai Senga: Around 4 years, $60 million with another $10 million-plus on top of that in posting fees to Fukuoka (his NPB club)

For the 2023 cost of Judge (let’s call that AAV $37-38 million), the Yankees could get Nimmo and Senga for basically the same first-year price and about half of the overall guarantee over the life of the contracts.

With a little more than $80 million total coming off the books this winter, the Yankees could still make their rotation even better by signing Verlander or strengthen their bullpen by adding Edwin Diaz — who could get a record reliever contract in the five-year, $100 million range — as another headlining acquisition, along with some smaller bullpen/platoon/bench additions while maintaining a similar payroll as this season.

But this is the New York Yankees and Aaron Judge is a face of the franchise-type player who will be coming off one of the greatest offensive seasons in franchise history — so the better question might not be can they afford to keep Judge, but can they afford to move on without him?

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